Ted Kennedy, in Substance

I was a 20-year-old visiting student at the London School of Economics in the winter of 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. I had spent much of the previous year volunteering for Ted Kennedy. Jimmy Carter was too conservative for me. And now this guy? The guy who said air pollution was caused by plants and trees? How was the cause supposed to endure, the dream live on and the hope never die in a country that elected a crazy man like that? (To say nothing of the newly elected Republican senate…)

As it happened, on the day after the election the school had scheduled a speech by Anthony Wedgewood “Tony” Benn, the militant socialist Labor Party politician who was in the process of taking over the party in all but name. Benn’s politics were thrilling to me. They were to the left of every single American politician—with the possible exception of Berkeley congressman Ron Dellums—by a country mile. He wanted to end the Cold War. He wanted to nationalize industries. He wanted to soak the rich. He wanted to do all the things that conservatives accuse liberals of secretly wanting to do in this country but for which they haven’t the slightest shred of evidence. But he was proud of it and said so, over and over. (I should probably add that during my tenure at the LSE, I became rather enthralled with what we used to call “the early Marx” as an explanation for the way the world worked.)

During the Q & A, I stood up and gave voice to my sense of shock. “Why is it,” I asked, “that radical politicians of the left like Teddy Kennedy and yourself [meaning Mr. Benn] always seem to scare their respective electorates while radical politicians of the right like Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan do not?” I thought it a good question at the time, but alas, Tony Benn did not. He was deeply disturbed to be compared to a namby-pamby American liberal like Ted Kennedy. “You Americans,” he sighed. “You go all around the world instructing Third World countries on the evils of one-party states. America itself is a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, you have two of them.”

It was a great line at the time, and was met with much laughter and applause. And given the Ford and Carter presidencies, it was not entirely without merit at the time. Of course, history has proven how wrong you can be even when you’re getting applauded for making fun of silly Americans and Clio, the Muse of History, has now proven Benn as wrong as wrong can be. With his all-or-nothing Nader-like unwillingness to compromise and cooperate with politicians less pure than himself, Benn succeeded only in destroying the Labor Party’s ability to win elections for a decade or so, before finally making himself irrelevant in the age of “New Labor” which thoroughly repudiated both his substance and style. He gave soaring speeches, sure, but he ended up leaving the people about whom he cared so much at the mercy of those whose policies he despised. (Sound familiar, Ralph?)

Ted Kennedy, on the other hand, stayed in the trenches, giving great speeches, sure, but slogging through presidency after presidency negotiating, compromising, closing whatever deal was possible at the time on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and those who desperately needed someone to fight for them.

Kennedy’s death was quite properly the nation’s number-one story last week according to a report released Tuesday by the Project on Excellence in Journalism. In fact, it “generated more coverage than that of any other political or celebrity since the PEJ News Coverage Index began in January 2007” according to PEJ’s accounting. How did the media do with the substance of these fights?

NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepherd, counted 53 stories on the network running between August 26 and August 30, not including those that ran on NPR.org. Shepherd’s complaint, however was that the coverage was insufficiently critical. “[O]n that first day,” she writes, “in the 23 on-air stories, only one mentioned the name Mary Jo Kopechne and 5 mentioned Chappaquiddick.” She also wanted more on the fact that “he got kicked out of Harvard for cheating. He was known in his younger years for womanizing and drinking too much. In 1991, he was carousing with his son Patrick and nephew William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach. Later that night, a woman accused Smith of raping her. Smith was tried and later acquitted.”

I sympathize with the argument that underlies Shepherd’s criticism. Just last week, for instance, I thought that media coverage of Robert Novak’s death was obscuring significant facts about his work as a journalist and political activist and so I sought to set the record straight.

But even so I think Shepherd is wrong. Most if not all of the unflattering incidents she raises in Kennedy’s life were those of the private and not the public man. And while that focus is consistent with most of the coverage itself—as well as almost all of the speeches given at both his public memorial and funeral, save only President Barack Obama’s—I was much more interested in what the coverage yielded.

The L.A. Times published a worthy story about the manner in which Kennedy’s legislation affected average Americans, something that is altogether lacking in most coverage of Washington politics. Richard Simon noted that Kennedy “wrote bills that increased the minimum wage, made it easier for workers who lost jobs to keep their health insurance, and allowed employees to take time off to care for newborn children or deal with family illnesses. One of his efforts has resulted in the delivery of more than 6 billion meals to seniors, according to his office.

“He worked with Republicans to gain passage of a number of landmark measures: the Americans With Disabilities Act providing protections against discrimination; the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, which his office says created the ‘single largest federal program for people with HIV/AIDS’ in the United States; and the Orphan Drug Act providing tax credits to encourage the development of medicines for rare diseases. He co-wrote legislation to create a children’s health insurance program that today covers more than 7 million previously uninsured children. With then-Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), he pushed through legislation that guaranteed Americans the right to buy health insurance and limited the length of time that an insurer could deny coverage for a specific preexisting medical condition. In 2001, Kennedy teamed up with President George W. Bush to gain passage of No Child Left Behind education legislation for increased testing and incentives to school districts. He also helped write laws to give 18-year-olds the right to vote.”

Harold Meyerson wrote a moving American Prospect column on Kennedy that focused on the inspirational role he played for the party’s downtrodden liberal wing during the dark conservative times of the late Carter and Reagan presidencies:

I was fortunate to have been in the room when he was at his greatest, at a succession of speeches beginning at the Democratic Party’s Midterm Convention in Memphis in 1978. Kennedy and the United Auto Workers had been pushing the Carter administration to bring an ambitious plan for universal health care to the Hill, but Carter demurred. The administration also began moving away from classic New Deal economic policies, deregulating industries and cutting back spending as joblessness spiraled. Increasingly, it was Kennedy who spoke out against many of these changes. At Memphis, Carter delivered a lackluster speech that won a tepid response, but Kennedy absolutely electrified the delegates with a passionate address on the need for universal health care. The delegates stood and cheered straight through the last two minutes of Kennedy’s delivery—his voice was so resonant that he concluded, rightly, that he could be heard even over the din. The speech laid out and created the momentum for his coming challenge to Carter. The talk included characteristically elegant affirmations of the causes of women’s and civil rights and biting attacks on Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and his crazy notions. It concluded with a moving description of the Americans Kennedy had met while campaigning who were suffering through hard times, and his pledge to continue fighting for them. But read today, what stands out is his opposition to the rightward movement of the economic mainstream and to the Democrats’ retreat from their historic commitment to full employment. Even more, what stands out is his apprehension that the unionized, industrial America that anchored the nation’s prosperity and the Democrats’ popular majorities was giving way to a meaner economic order.

I do not mean to imply that only such inspirational stories are appropriate when covering the life and death of a so-significant figure. Writing on nyt.com Weekend Opinionator Tobin Harshaw, speaking to the same questions I raise here, decided to focus on Kennedy’s role in leading the opposition against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork and finds much to criticize in that performance. Quoting his colleague Ethan Bronner, who covered the hearings for the Boston Globe, he notes that Kennedy “shamelessly twisted Bork’s world view—‘rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids’ was an Orwellian reference to Bork’s criticism of the exclusionary rule, through which judges exclude illegally obtained evidence, and Bork had never suggested he opposed the teaching of evolution…”

But the fact is, after I read hundreds of pages of obituaries and funeral coverage, I knew a great deal about the Kennedy family and their personal trials and tribulations but not so much about why Ted Kennedy should have mattered to the rest of us, particularly those who (unlike yours truly) did not view him as a champion of their values. Given my limited researching capabilities, the best pieces I found were those that dealt with the man’s legacy before the specter of death began to color that coverage. For instance here is the late Jack Newfield writing in The Nation in 2002:

After 40 years, Ted Kennedy’s name, or imprint, is on an impressive array of legislative monuments, including: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for which he delivered his maiden Senate speech; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the expansion of the voting franchise to 18-year-olds; the $24 billion Kennedy-Hatch law of 1997, which provided health insurance to children with a new tax on tobacco; two increases in the minimum wage; the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, which made health insurance portable for workers; the 1988 law that allocated $1.2 billion for AIDS testing, treatment, and research; the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act; the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act; and last year’s 1,200-page education reform act, which he negotiated directly with President Bush and his staff. Kennedy has also helped abolish the poll tax, liberalize immigration laws, fund cancer research, and create the Meals on Wheels program for shut-ins and the elderly. In 1985 Kennedy and Republican Lowell Weicker co-sponsored the legislation that imposed economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The bill became law despite opposition from Bob Dole, a filibuster by Jesse Helms, and a veto by President Reagan. Only Kennedy could have mustered the votes to override by 78 to 21 a veto from Reagan at the height of his power.

By far my favorite, however, was a piece of extended poetry by the great Charlie Pierce, which appeared in the Boston Globe magazine in 2003. I strongly suggest you read the entire piece but here is a taste:

If his name were Edward Moore . . .

If his name were Edward Moore, Robert Bork might be on the Supreme Court today. Robert Dole might have been elected president of the United States. There might still be a draft. There would not have been the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which overturned seven Supreme Court decisions that Kennedy saw as rolling back the gains of the civil rights movement; the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the most wide-ranging civil rights bill since the original ones in the 1960s; the Kennedy-Kassebaum Bill of 1996, which allows "portability" in health care coverage; or any one of the 35 other initiatives—large and small, on everything from Medicare to the minimum wage to immigration reform—that Kennedy, in opposition and in the minority, managed to cajole and finesse through the Senate between 1996 and 1998, masterfully defusing the Gingrich Revolution and maneuvering Dole into such complete political incoherence that Bill Clinton won reelection in a walk. None of this would have happened, if his name were Edward Moore.

Finally, I know I’ve gone on too long, but I had a very moving encounter with my daughter and the senator on the night of Nancy Pelosi’s inauguration as Speaker of the House. I wrote it up, on my Nation weblog, Altercation, and you can find it here. It’s something my family will treasure, I hope, for generations.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.